Cape Town's 'sharkboy' to take on ocean at charity boat race
Paralympian Achmat “Sharkboy” Hassiem will be among the participants in the Great Optimist Race that will take place at the V&A Waterfront on October 20.
The race was the brainchild of Greg Bertish, 47, founder of The Little Optimist Trust, a public benefit organisation aiming to inspire and help children in hospital through teaching them the skill of sailing and raising funds and awareness for the Children’s Hospital Trust and the Red Cross Hospital ICU.
The event – that will require participants to take part in a slow race of about one or two kilometres in a tiny dinghy – will raise funds for The Little Optimist Trust and other non-profit organisations such as Shark Spotters, The National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI), Cancer Dojo and the Newborns Trust.
“These adults sailing in these tiny little sailboats aims to show kids that they can do amazing things despite what they may be facing or what diseases they’re fighting in hospital.”
Achmat has been back at sea numerous times since the attack and decided to take part in the race after being approached by Greg. Even though he’s never sailed before, the mission of the affair grabbed his attention.
“I decided to get involved because of the aim of the event – giving kids the opportunity to experience things and to show them that nothing is impossible despite their circumstances,” he said.
“I’m a big guy so racing in those boats is going to be a lot of fun and good laughs.”
The 36-year-old lost his leg on 13 August 2006 during a routine exercise for lifeguards at Muizenberg beach as they prepared for their looming life-saving exams. During the practice-run of a multiple patient rescue, he and a few others were in a rescue boat and had to be saved by the other trainees.
“During the exercise a massive 4,7m great white shark entered the training arena and was headed for my brother, Tariq Hassiem, 29. I drummed and splashed the water to get the shark’s attention away from my brother before screaming for the lifeguards to get him out,” he said.
“The shark then grabbed me by the leg and pulled me under. I fought for my life against it doing everything they tell you to do, like punch it on the nose and aim for the eye.”
These exercises didn’t work and Achmat could actually feel his leg being torn off by the great white.
“My leg broke in two and I immediately swam for the surface where my brother pulled me into the boat.”
He says that it took him a few months to recover from the attack and he got a lot of support from professionals and prosthetists – it was his emotional journey that was hardest.
“Staying positive throughout my recovery and coming to terms that I’m an amputee was one of the biggest challenges I faced,” he said.
After his shark encounter, Natalie Du Toit (34) – a South African Olympian and Paralympian – got him involved in swimming at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa and Achmat appropriately says he took to it like a shark in water and fell in love with the butterfly stroke.
“In 2008 we had Olympic and Paralympic trials in Durban at the South African national swimming championships held in Kings Park swimming pool. I qualified for the Men’s 100m butterfly and 400m freestyle in Beijing China, the first international competition I took part in.”
He’s not bitter about the attack and said he often used the fear of a shark chasing him in water as adrenalin to go faster.
“I love the ocean and all its creatures. Today I work as a global marine and sharks guardian for the United Nations, protecting sharks and various other species all over the world.”
His proudest moment was having the opportunity to represent South Africa at the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London, where he won a bronze medal in the 100m butterfly stroke. He also became the fastest amputee swimmer in the world for his butterfly events.
Although he has retired since the Rio Paralympic Games in 2016, he definitely hasn’t been resting on his laurels where fitness is concerned and enjoys para-karate and bodybuilding.
He’s also currently working on a movie with Vin Diesel called Bloodshot, set to be released in the United States in 2020.